Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Harsh Reality of Reading...People

"She took it, even though none of her stock had arrived as yet from London, as a compliment to the power of books themselves."  -- Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop

When I first picked up this title, it was the cover that caught my eye.  I know, I know - never judge a book and all that.  However, the cover was beautiful:


I wasn't familiar with Penelope Fitzgerald's work - just Ms. Fitzgerald.  I knew her literary career did not begin until she was 58 and she went on to write many well-received and awarded pieces of fiction and nonfiction.  So it wasn't a surprise to find her protagonist, Florence Green, to be a middle-aged woman trying to begin a new stage of her life.

But let's return to the cover.  The cover offers a very romantic notion of owning a bookshop - you can see all of the books tucked away in corners or on shelves offering a well of knowledge to the customers.  Doesn't it sound lovely?  The back of the novel promises a tale of "courage" and "survival."  I've always wanted to own a bookshop (and what furious reader does not wish the same fate?), so I fell into the romanticized idea of Florence Green as an aspiring bookseller.

I am happy to report that this is not what the book is about (Fitzgerald is a more talented writer than that).  The only character who shares my romantic notions toward bookselling is Florence herself and it doesn't work out for her in her town of Hardborough.  You would think that a middle-aged woman opening a bookshop in her small town would not be a cause of controversy, but the characters in this novel take her enterprise as a personal affront.  Florence is rebuked for her dream and many characters go out of their way to ruin it for her.  Now Florence may love the romantics behind running a bookshop, but she has to deal with lack of sales, indifference from her patrons, indifference from her town, lack of concern from the bank, her lawyer, and her employees, and an old, waterlogged house where she resides and runs her business that is home to a very nasty poltergeist (I know that last bit sounds strange, but trust me, you could have field day doing an literary analysis of this one detail.  The poltergeist is viewed as a piece of realism, in which Florence and the townspeople are aware of its presence, but only in the worst possible moments of the narrative).    Yet, Florence continues to press on with a determination that is viewed as a stubborn courage for a woman "her age," but is actually a desperation to survive despite the world trying to take her down.  Florence continues to hope that the "power of books" will save her and her shop, and the reader wishes that for her, but Fitzgerald is here to remind us that a success story needs more than dreaming.

As much as I want to, because the last sentence of the novel is so heartbreakingly beautiful and sad and horrifying and upsetting all in one, I will not give away the ending to Penelope Fitzgerald's The Bookshop.  No, Florence does not die, but the narrative shifts in the last two chapters and offers a newer story.  The end narrative will continue long after Florence goes or any bookshop comes and goes. This new story is about the harsh reality of rejecting the knowledge, the culture, and the hope that comes from reading.   Florence's plight is no different than anyone who struggles to make an impression on his/her environment. Like all independent businesses, Florence's bookshop has the opportunity to breathe life into the local atmosphere - she hires a young person to help her in the store; she opens up a lending library for patrons; she even listens to recommendations from patrons.  However, all of Florence's actions are met with a heavy resistance.  The animosity she receives for trying to begin a new stage in her life while bringing a bookshop to her town is astounding.  The antagonist, Violet Gamart, pulls out all the stops to discredit and to discourage Florence.  Her strength to continue is interpreted as headstrong, which only infuriates Violet.  The reader sees Florence's strength as a struggle to make a livelihood - not just for herself, but the citizens of Hardborough.

The indifference and selfishness that meets Florence at every turn reminds me of the hate culture in which we reside.  Everyone is so willing to cut someone down to size - even if that person is minding his/her own business. Florence is described as having a "kind heart, though that is not of much use when it comes to the matter of self-preservation" (Fitzgerald).  This the author's way of telling us from the first page that Florence is in trouble.  Sure enough, the citizens prove the narrator correct by choosing to abuse and to take advantage of Florence at every turn.  There are a few characters who do support and care for Florence, but end up suffering due to situations beyond their control (though the reader is left wondering who IS in control when their fates befall them).  As a universal culture, we love watching the train wreck.  The protagonist's attempt to beautify her town is a train wreck the reader is forced to experience.  What does the bookshop represent to the Hardborough citizens?  Sometimes the characters' scheming reminds me of something out of a soap opera.  Why all the fuss?  Where is the loyalty among local business owners?  Is it just jealousy or something more?

As the narrative approaches its ending, the reader feels let down, yet satisfied. To make this narrative into a cheerful ending would be an insult to Florence, the reader, and to Fitzgerald's body of work.  Is The Bookshop a cautionary tale?  And if so, for whom:  small business owners, older women attempting to start over, or anyone who wishes to defy convention in a narrow-minded environment?   Although published in 1997 and set in a small town on the Suffolk seacoast, it makes me wonder where we are as a civilization when the universal themes of self-preservation and indifference still make us jump as though we've heard the "rapper" in Florence's bookshop banging around upstairs.  What is to become of us if a small, local bookshop cannot flourish?
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